In Kenya’s election, a fierce battle to lead an African powerhouse

KANGARI, Kenya — The helicopter flew over the lush tea and coffee fields surrounding Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak, and landed outside a small highland town where William Ruto, the self-proclaimed leader of Kenya’s “rogue nation,” emerged.

mr. Ruto, the favorite in next Tuesday’s presidential election, is pinning his hopes on what he calls Kenya’s “rogues” – the masses of disillusioned young people, most of them poor, who just want to get ahead. He delights his supporters with his account of how he was once so poor that he sold chickens by the side of the road, and with his lively attacks on rivals he portrays as elitist and out of touch.

“I grew up in second-hand clothes,” he boasted to a roaring crowd in Kangari, where farmers and traders crowded around his vehicle of choice, a canary-yellow, stretchy SUV with glitter “Every commotion counts,” read the slogan on his door.

The strange thing is that Mr. Ruto has already been in power for the past nine years as the Vice President of Kenya. And he became a very wealthy man, with interests in land, luxury hotels and, perhaps fittingly, a large chicken processing plant.

Controversies abound in this election in Kenya, a tumultuous and unpredictable race between Mr. Ruto, 55, and Raila Odinga, a veteran 77-year-old opposition politician who is making his fifth bid for the presidency after failing in the first four. But the perennial outsider has now been cast as an insider after forming an alliance with the man who was his bitter enemy for years – outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Days after the vote, the race is fierce – a stark contrast to many other African countries such as Uganda and Mountain, where once great democratic hopes gave way to fake votes and military coups. For its Western allies, this underscores why Kenya matters more than ever. Since its first competitive multi-party elections 20 years ago, the east African nation has become a growing technology hub, a key partner in the fight against terrorism, a source of world-class athletes and a pillar of stability in a region wracked by hunger and strife.

Kenyans are enthusiastic voters with an 80 percent turnout in the 2017 election (compared to 52 percent for the United States presidential race a year earlier); on Tuesday, 22.1 million registered voters will choose candidates for six races, including president, parliament and local bodies.

The vote comes at a worrisome time for weary Kenyans. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have hit their economy, which is strained by billions of dollars in debt for Chinese-built road and rail projects. In the north, a a devastating four-year drought threatens 4 million people with starvation.

But this contest is less about issues than a titanic clash of personalities, age vs. ambition – peppered with a steady stream of personalized attacks.

mr. Ruto, a charismatic and ambitious leader with a ruthless edge, taunts Mr. Odinga as the ‘Riddle man’, mining his penchant for quoting folk proverbs and riddles and as the ‘project’ of his ally, Mr. Kenyatta.

mr. Odinga, a veteran leftist who estimates that corruption costs Kenya millions every day, has another word for his opponent. “Is it the thief?” he asked the crowd at a rally in Machakos, 40 miles from Nairobi, on a recent afternoon.

“Route!” – answered his supporters.

The accusations that Mr. Ruto’s graft-prone team (or at least more prone than its opponents) was given a boost in the courts last week when the High Court ordered his running mate, Rigati Gachagua, to forfeit $1.7 million in ill-gotten gains. mr. Gachagua, whose bank accounts were frozen by a government anti-corruption agency in 2020, is appealing the sentence, which he dismissed as politically motivated.

mr. Odinga also faces allegations of a nasty compromise. The son of Kenya’s first vice president, he spent most of his career on the opposition benches. He personified the sense of discontent among his fellow Luos, Kenya’s fourth-largest ethnic group, who have never had a president.

After weeks of vocal research, the latest data gives Mr. Odinga has a clear lead. He is buoyed by the buzz surrounding his vice-presidential candidate, Martha Karua, seen as a principled politician with a long history of activism who, if elected, would become Kenya’s first female vice-president.

One wildcard is the third candidate, George Vajakoya, who won a small but vociferous protest vote amid his proposals to legalize marijuana and, more strangely, to export hyena testicles to China (where they are said to have medical value ).

If Mr. Wajackoyah can keep his share of the vote, up to 3 percent in the polls, he can deny Mr. Ruto or Mr. Raila with the 50 percent majority needed to win and trigger a second round of voting 30 days later.

One of the biggest forces in the race is not on the ticket. The current president Mr. Kenyatta, turned politics upside down in 2018 when he struck a political deal known as the “handshake” with Mr. Odinga.

The union ended the feud between Kenya’s two major political dynasties that lasted until 1969 when Mr. Kenyatta’s father, then president, imprisoned Mr. Odinga’s father, the leader of the opposition, for 18 months.

But for many Kenyans, the handshake was little more than “children of kings” making a deal to benefit themselves, said Nyoki Wamai, assistant professor of international relations at the United States International University – Africa in Nairobi.

mr. Ruto, stung by an alleged betrayal, built his own base in Mr. Kenyatta’s political backyard in Mount Kenya, the ethnic Kikuyu-dominated area that accounts for about a quarter of the Kenyan electorate.

The vitriol between the two men is never far from the surface. “You have enough money, security and cars,” said Mr. Ruto said at a rally recently, addressing the President. “Now go home.”

“Don’t vote for thieves,” mr. Kenyatta told supporters days later. “Otherwise you’ll regret it.”

One obstacle facing both candidates is apathy. Younger Kenyans in particular say they are repulsed by the byzantine feuds, alliances and backroom deals that preoccupy their leaders.

Evans Atika, a barber from Nairobi’s South C district, fits the profile of a typical “con artist”. But after voting in 2017, he intends to stay home this time. “They’re all the same,” he said. “They’re lying. They’ve made promises they can’t keep.”

Elections in Kenya are among the most complicated and expensive in the world. This one is expected to cost $370 million, using ballots with more security features than the country’s banknotes. But elections here have a history of confusion.

Widespread violence following a disputed result in 2007 led to more than 1,200 deaths, displaced 600,000 people and prompted an International Criminal Court investigation into politicians accused of funding death squads and inciting ethnic hatred. mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto were accused of crimes against humanity.

But by 2016 both cases collapsedafter what one judge called “a disturbing case of witness tampering and intolerable political interference.”

Other elections in Kenya have led to courtroom disputes that have ended with judges rollover results. And days before the last vote in 2017, a senior Electoral Commission official was found brutally murdered in a remote forest outside Nairobi.

The case was never resolved.

This time, there are fewer concerns about widespread election-related violence, human rights monitors say. But in recent weeks, some residents in ethnically mixed areas, particularly in the Rift Valley, which saw the worst unrest in previous elections, have voluntarily moved to safety in larger cities.

However, much will depend on the final result. Kenya’s electoral commission has a week to announce a winner, although analysts expect the losing party to file a legal appeal, prolonging the race.

One bright spot, amid the mudslinging, is the potential for radical change in the corrosive ethnic politics that have dominated Kenya for decades. The shifting alliances mean that for the first time millions of voters are expected to cross ethnic lines, particularly around Mount Kenya, where for the first time Kikuyu will have to vote for a candidate from another group.

“I love this guy,” Michael Muigai, a self-described “fraudster,” said after the rally for Mr. Ruto in Kangari.

mr. Muigai, who is 22 years old, works on the construction of a Chinese road construction project to earn his deferred college accommodation fees. He said he didn’t care that Mr. Ruto is an ethnic Kalenjin and has dismissed media reports linking him to corruption.

“The past is the past,” he said.

Declan Walsh reported from Kangari, Kenya and Abdi Latif Dahir from Machakos, Kenya.

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